Danger lurks when a nation’s military deterrence fades
A strong military deterrence maintains peace and stability. The Cold War witnessed regional wars, but war did not break out between the two superpowers at the time — the United States and the Soviet Union — because of military deterrence. The horrific prospect of mutually assured destruction unleashed by a nuclear attack insured that nuclear weapons wouldn’t be used. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 make it less likely that nukes would be used, as the USSR removed missiles from Cuba, and the United States did the same in Turkey to resolve the crisis.
If an antagonist tries to disrupt stability, its opponent maintains deterrence by diplomatic means; if that is unsuccessful, it uses military action. Witness the takedown of Iraqi and Syrian nuclear ambitions by the Israeli air force.
When Iran mined the Persian Gulf during its war with Iraq in 1998, impeding international traffic in violation of international law, the U.S. Navy destroyed much of Iran’s navy. Don’t mess with us was the resounding message. Deterrence was maintained.
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In the aftermath of the unprecedented military losses of World War I, followed by the millions of deaths caused by the Spanish flu, the Western powers were haunted by the generation they lost. The West embarked on many efforts at arms control and even outlawed war through the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928.
Unfortunately, Hitler’s Germany seized the opportunity to fill the military and geopolitical void by doing the opposite. Correctly diagnosing the Western powers’ desire to avoid conflict at all costs, Hitler began taking military action in defiance of the Versailles Treaty that ended the so-called “war to end all wars.” He enlarged his army beyond the treaty’s limits, armed Germany to the teeth, and launched a series of events upsetting the status quo. German troops entered the supposedly demilitarized Rhine. Nobody stopped him. He absorbed Austria with nary a whimper and enthusiastic crowds cheering him on. And when the Western powers woke up, its main weapon was appeasement. When “peace in our time” was betrayed by the rape of Czechoslovakia, France and Great Britain vowed to declare war if Germany attacked Poland.
On September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, Hitler was concerned about protecting Germany’s vulnerable western border with France — his Polish invasion concentrated his forces on the east. He shouldn’t have worried — France, which had the largest European army at the time, did next to nothing, ensuring that Germany would conquer it too. That happened less than eight months later.
World War II would claim tens of millions of lives, leaving a shattered world in its wake.
The human race is capable of doing the most miraculous and the most evil deeds imaginable. We may master new technologies and foster globalization on an increasingly shrinking world. But human nature does not change. We always will have the quest for destructive conquest and power. Only the players change.
And so, with end of the Cold War, and under the United States’ nuclear umbrella, western Europeans forgot the lessons of deterrence, just as their parents had. They unilaterally disarmed; few countries met NATO’s requirement that they spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense.
With Russia’s ruthless aggression against Ukraine, the Europeans are playing catch-up as they provide the essential weapons the Ukrainians desperately need in defense of their country, and of freedom for Europe. Even so, the United States is providing the preponderance of weaponry, with the hope that some modicum of deterrence is restored against the Russian bear as it tries to move further west, into Moldova and adjacent territories.
What about Israel and its vaunted military deterrence, which insured its survival these past 75 years? While most of our attention has been focused on the internal strife within Israel, brought on by the Netanyahu government’s injudicious overreach on judicial reform, Israel’s enemies have been watching. They have heard pilots’ and reservists’ threats to boycott the IDF, and the sometimes harsh rhetoric against the government by some of its opponents as they decry Israel’s dissolution. They have seen the hundreds of thousands of people protesting peacefully in the streets, waving Israeli flags, calling for the proper checks and balances that the judiciary provides. (And it’s also truth that some reform is needed, as the judiciary is basically self- perpetuating.)
In his recent address, buttressed by many attacks on Israel from Lebanon and Gaza and the chaos on the Temple Mount, Ayatollah Khamenei predicted the near demise of Israel because of its massive divisiveness. He even quoted some of the Israeli opposition. Meanwhile hundreds have been killed in Iran in its own demonstrations, as Iranians call for the ouster of the regime.
And what about the expansion of the Abraham Accords? Having seen the chaos in Israel, questions linger as to the cost of expanding its membership. Fuel is added to the flame by firebrands such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who called for the razing of an Arab village and denied the existence of a Palestinian people, ignoring millions of his neighbors beyond the Green Line.
Hedging its bets, Saudi Arabia is restoring diplomatic relations with Iran, in a deal facilitated by China, displacing the United States from its usual role of diplomatic primacy in the region. Why? Because the Gulf countries have lost confidence in the U.S.’s staying power as a protector of their interests in an increasingly volatile region.
There is ample evidence of the erosion of our deterrence in the Middle East. Beginning with President Obama’s breaching of his red line against Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and up to today, we have not flexed our power to maintain our deterrence. When Iran destroyed Saudi Arabia’s major oil refinery, President Trump did nothing. When Saudi Arabia is called a pariah nation and has its arms request put on hold, is it any wonder that it will cut oil production to spite us? Or romance with the Chinese? I condemn the kingdom’s record on civil rights, but in this region, realpolitik reigns, and we need to play the game if we’re still dependent on the Saudis for oil and as a bulwark against Iran.
The world witnessed our ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan in real time, resulting in the loss of 13 Americans and 190 Afghanis. It was reminiscent of the retreat from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. Now we have thousands of our former allies desperately seeking to leave Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the country’s master, the Taliban, is the largest recipient of U.S. arms in recent history. And yet the Administration has touted the retreat in favorable terms. Yes, it was a major logistical achievement, withdrawing more than 120,000 people against the backdrop of chaos. But, as Churchill said about Dunkirk, don’t celebrate it as a victory against our enemies.
More recently, we allowed a Chinese surveillance balloon to traverse our country with little consequence and did virtually nothing when a Russian jet downed our drone in the Black Sea. In Congressional testimony, our top defense officials admitted that we responded only four times against 78 attacks against our troops by Iran or its proxies. And with our embarrassing intelligence breach, we are losing our allies’ trust that we can protect their secrets.
Restoring military deterrence is critical for Israel, which must find a way to reach a compromise on addressing the consequential divisive issues confronting it. As of this writing, both sides of the negotiations are taking this matter seriously; it affects not only shalom bayit but Israel’s security. I hope that now that Yoav Gallant is back as defense minister, he can establish calm, so that the esprit de corps of the IDF will be restored not only for Israel but as a message to a hostile neighborhood.
The prime minister has failed in his promise to protect the guardrails against the extremists in his coalition. I hope that this pause in legislative action will lead him to govern responsibly during these dangerous times.
Over the past few years, the United States has put too much faith in vigorous diplomacy, naively believing that it would forestall a Russian invasion or temper Iran’s behavior. It’s almost the inverse of Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum — now we seem to be saying “speak loudly and carry a small stick.”
We are a superpower and must reinforce the message that no one should mess with us. It reminds me of the scene in the “Untouchables.” Sean Connery played a Chicago cop named Jim Malone. When asked how to thwart Al Capone he responded: “You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue… Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?”
Diplomacy works if it is backed by military power. Our enemies must know we’ll flex it when necessary. We must instill fear in our enemies so that they know for every action there will be an even stronger reaction.
Only in this way can we strengthen our deterrence, which also will be a boon for Israel as it faces an existential threat from Iran.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014. He is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation and consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project.